Retro Heaven

The Defector

Montgomery Clift in the 1966 film, The Defector…

SERGE-GAINSBOURG-FILM-1966The 1966 spy thriller, The Defector, should, for those who crave a sense of Cold War East Germany, prove a worthy alternative to re-runs of The Ipcress File and Funeral in Berlin. Directed by the Belgian Raoul Lévy with cinematography by Raoul Coutard and music by Serge Gainsbourg no less, it is a deeply atmospheric film with a remarkable performance by Montgomery Clift.

What is striking about the film is that neither the lead actor nor the director lived to see the film’s release. Montgomery Clift who played Professor Bower, an American physicist was already very ill during the filming and only agreed to take on the role as a way of preparing for his part alongside his close friend Elizabeth Taylor in the 1967 film Reflections in a Golden Eye (Marlon Brando would replace him) He died less than three months after all but some of the film’s shooting had been completed.

Gone were Clift’s handsome features, a man whose looks could challenge Brando’s, here was a man who, ten years after a serious car accident in which Elizabeth Taylor most probably saved his life was a chronic alcoholic with a face semi-paralysed from his accident and a body ravaged by drug taking and the lingering effects of a serious bout of dysentery and intestinal problems.

Raoul Levy, who had recently lost most of his considerable fortune on a film about Marco Polo the year before, shot himself on the doorstep of his former lover in St Tropez shortly after she ended their affair.

Knowing these facts goes some way in understanding the quite sombre mood of the film, it is a classic Cold War story with a typically solid and Germanic performance by the wonderful Hardy Krüger alongside Macha Méril whose youthful looks struggle to convince as Clift’s love interest. But there is enough within the film for a 1960s American audience to understand life behind the Berlin Wall. The constant security checks, the state surveillance and the mistrust of neighbours and work colleagues are shown effectively and without triumphant patriotism. The promo poster opposite gives the impression of a ‘crash, bang, wallop’ film but it isn’t, think a blend of the first two Harry Palmer films without the wit or the idiocy of the third and you’ll get the idea.

So if you are a fan of this genre then look it up, it’s well worth a watch, if only for Clift’s sheepskin coat!

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